Shaping Teacher Education to Meet our Distinct Needs

Danielle Lansing headshot

Danielle Lansing

This is the third post in a three-part MSIs Unplugged series on teacher education at federally-designated Minority Serving Institutions from the contributors to Teacher Education across Minority Serving Institutions: Programs Policies, and Social Justice, edited by Emery Petchauer and Lynnette Mawhinney. Authors will draw from their chapter to illustrate some of the important work happening in MSI teacher education programs. We hope this series helps move MSI teacher education into the view of both education scholars and the general public.

Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCU) across the United States were founded to specifically meet the needs of tribal communities through access to higher education and capacity building. More than half of TCUs include teacher education as part of their academic programming. At many TCUs, teacher education programs tend to have the highest student enrollment compared to other offerings. This is due to the motivation of tribal community members who seek to improve the education systems that directly serve their children.

In the past, tribal nations have been excluded from determining how their children might best be served. Generations of American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) families have experienced assimilationist curriculums that necessitated the exclusion of parents to be effective. Consequently, parents and community members have been left out of the equation and were expected to trust in the schools they sent their children too. As a result, many AIAN communities have felt the negative impact of unresponsive educational systems.

I remember the stories my mother told me when I was a child. These stories included being sent away to school as early as third grade. My mother left home to attend off-reservation schools hundreds of miles away from home. She was only allowed to come home during the summers. Much of what she learned was incongruent with the teachings of our family as she was expected to leave her culture at home. As a result, her home life and schooling were very disconnected. Unfortunately, her story is not an isolated one. I often wondered how much potential was lost as future community members experienced an education that could not be translated back into their communities.

Tribal communities continue to grapple with the loss of language and culture as well as the pervasive achievement gap. For many school systems that serve AIAN children, their focus continues to rely heavily on mainstream curriculum and remediation. Teachers trained in mainstream teacher education programs often learn very little about how to shape their curriculum to meet the unique needs of AIAN students. In order for a change to take place, a new cadre of teachers and leaders need to be developed. One that is ready to provide effective educational programs that support the unique needs of AIAN communities.

Part of why I was drawn to become part of the Tribal College Movement, was to participate in developing a foundation for educational sovereignty to emerge in tribal communities. It begins by partnering with tribal communities and including them in determining how educational programs, schools, early childhood centers, and teachers can be instrumental in solving the complex problems that impact student success. For many communities, this necessitates striking a balance with mainstream curriculum and culturally relevant curriculum. In order to develop teacher education programs that can train teachers to maintain a curriculum balanced with AIAN community needs, tribal voices will have to be heard.

As a TCU faculty member, I consider myself privileged to participate in a community of practice that includes AIAN students who represent the distinct needs of their communities. In the safe spaces of our classrooms, we are able to learn mainstream early childhood education concepts but also develop a discourse of how these concepts may or may not support the distinct traditional learning systems already present in our communities. We think critically about how mainstream educational concepts can be enhanced and modified to better address the issues in AIAN communities. These deep discussions come from a shared history that we bring to the classroom. I believe that it is within this focused discourse lies the beginnings of educational sovereignty and solutions to the complex issues that continue to challenge our nations.

We continue to learn that tribal communities are very unique. Generalizations can seldom be made across tribal nations. For teachers to be effective in AIAN communities, understanding these realities is of utmost importance. As a teacher myself, I remember going through a period of relearning each time I entered a tribal community. As a teacher who was trained in a mainstream institution, I don’t ever remember being taught how to enter a community through a learning perspective. I must admit, I felt that I knew what had to be taught. However, as I entered each of the four tribal communities I served, I learned that I was expected to support a great deal more than the academic needs of students. Luckily, I learned quickly that including parents and community members to “school me” on what they felt was important would serve me well. In retrospect, I would have been better off initially if I had entered the field with the expectation that, in addition to the delivery of curriculum, each tribal community also had its own needs that needed to be considered.

For tribal colleges, our missions explicitly necessitate partnerships with tribal communities. Our hope is to continue to work towards striking a balance between the mainstream curriculum and what is culturally relevant. In this way, our teacher education program continues to be informed by the AIAN communities we serve. Our hope is that we are always moving towards building our own systems. We are on that journey now.

Danielle Lansing is a faculty member in Early Childhood Education at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI). She is a scholar and practitioner who has spent the majority of her career teaching the primary grades in Bureau of Indian Education and tribal contract schools in various tribal communities. Dr. Lansing’s research interests include Participatory Action Research in American Indian and Alaskan Native communities as well as Indigenous research methodologies. She is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and credits her family history as shaping her motivation to improve Indian education.

Teacher Certification Exams as Barriers to the Diversification of the Teacher Workforce

This is the second in a three-part MSIs Unplugged series on teacher education at federally-designated Minority Serving Institutions from the contributors to Teacher Education across Minority Serving Institutions: Programs Policies, and Social Justice, edited by Emery Petchauer and Lynnette Mawhinney. Authors will draw from their chapter to illustrate some of the important work happening in MSI teacher education programs. We hope this series helps move MSI teacher education into the view of both education scholars and the general public.

This is the time of year when the emails and phone calls from worried teacher candidates start to ratchet up at our minority serving institutions. Candidates are concerned about the possibility they will not pass all of the exams or be certified in time to take a full-time teaching job come the fall. Last year, a teacher candidate, Maria, approached us about her persistent failure on one of the state-required content exams for teacher certification. It was her third time taking it and despite the time she spent studying and reviewing, a few points on the exam continued to elude her. Is this an indicator that this teacher candidate is not going be effective in the classroom?

Teacher certification exams are designed, in theory, to prevent ill-equipped teachers from entering our public school classrooms. The research suggests, however, that most certification exams are poor measures of a teacher’s ability to effectively teach the diversity of children in classrooms or of a teacher’s readiness to teach. Performance assessments, like the edTPA, are theoretically better indicators of these capacities, but the research is still emerging. Maria is a creative and purposeful teacher, with deep content knowledge, who is invested in working in urban schools and teaching all students effectively. She knows her students and we can attest that her lessons were consistently designed with each and every one of them in mind. It is possible that these paper-and-pencil exams might keep her from the classroom. Moreover, while she was less concerned about the edTPA, Maria mentioned to us that she faced the choice between paying her electricity bill and paying the $300 required to submit her edTPA.

As faculty at minority serving institutions, who are invested in the diversification of the teacher workforce, we consider supporting our teacher candidates through the hurdles of teacher certification exams as critical to our work. Our teacher candidate populations speak a variety of languages other than English; identify with different racial, ethnic, and religious groups that are highly underrepresented in the teacher workforce; and describe themselves as low- or working-class. Cost is a huge barrier to certification for many of these candidates who, like Maria, find the approximately $800 fee to complete all of the required exams daunting and, sometimes, impossible.

Our institutions have worked to find vouchers to support initial costs, and also to create zero-cost, faculty-led workshops designed to prepare candidates for the content and structure of the exams to reduce the need for retakes. Many of our candidates’ K-12 educations poorly prepared them for college-level work and few received strong feedback on their reading and writing. Moreover, most teacher certification exams are no longer pencil-and-paper tests, creating a need for candidates—whose K-12 educations integrated little technology—to practice reading and writing responses on a computer.Thus, within these workshops, candidates are supported in increasing their efficiency as readers and writers; familiarity with a wide variety of genres and content;and knowledge of techniques for taking computer-based exams.

Our teacher candidates often describe extreme fear and anxiety of the unknown at testing centers where they will take these computer-based exams. Rarely are they aware of the ways in which these actual testing situations, beliefs about self-efficacy, and their mindset about test-taking, shape their success. We have found that providing some familiarity with the situation within courses and the workshops (e.g., what identification will be required; the process for getting a new whiteboard on which to write; going to use the restroom) alleviates much of this anxiety. For the edTPA, we have found that it is also important that candidates feel they have permission to request the necessary time and assistance to complete the lesson sequence in classrooms. Mobilizing faculty members and university supervisors to work with candidates on the language and approach for these discussions with their cooperating teachers has made a significant difference in their confidence to advocate for themselves.

These exams are daunting for many of our candidates, but we have seen them thrive with targeted preparation that addresses gaps in their skills, knowledge, familiarity, and concerns. Finding avenues to seek out vouchers, ensuring candidates are well-prepared for the exams, and preparing them for the realities of testing centers, can help qualified and talented individuals from being kept out of the profession. However, supporting teacher candidates’ success on these exams does not diminish the responsibilities we, as teacher educators, have to be guardians of the profession. Our commitments to access, excellence, and the diversification of the teacher workforce drive our work, and this includes being mindful that not all individuals are appropriate for the profession despite their ability to pass certification exams.

Joni Kolman is an Assistant Professor of Teaching and Learning in the School of Education at California State University San Marcos; from 2013-2016 she served as an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at City College of New York, CUNY. Her research and teaching focuses on teacher quality and is situated at the intersection of teacher education in/for high-need schools, K-12 inclusive classroom practice, and education policy.

Laura M. Gellert is Associate Professor of Mathematics Education/Childhood Education at City College (CUNY), where she also is the director of the childhood education program. Her work focuses on such topics as in-service teacher mentorship, inclusive education with mathematics education and integrated STEM education that meets the needs of underrepresented minority populations.

It’s a Family Affair: Teacher Education at Minority Serving Institutions

This blog entry begins a month-long MSIs Unplugged series on teacher education at federally-designated Minority Serving Institutions from the contributors to Teacher Education across Minority Serving Institutions: Programs Policies, and Social Justice, edited by Emery Petchauer and Lynnette Mawhinney. Authors will draw from their chapter to illustrate some of the important work happening in MSI teacher education programs. We hope this series helps move MSI teacher education into the view of both education scholars and the general public.

As educators working at an HBCU in the past, we have been surprised by the lack of awareness around HBCUs and MSIs more broadly, particularly in the world of teacher education where there are consistent calls for a more racially diverse teaching profession. Often times, when people asked where we worked, we often responded with pride, “At an HBCU!” To our dismay, people didn’t know what that was or would reply, “You work in banking?” mistaking the acronym for Historically Black College and University acronym for the international bank, HSBC.

Little did they know: Teacher education programs at MSIs have been answering the call for a more racially diverse teaching profession for quite some time. In fact, many MSI teacher education programs are ahead of the curve in responding to challenges that historically and predominantly white institutions are only starting to confront.

MSIs produce an oversized proportion of teachers of color in the country, as illustrated by figures from 2015. Enrolling about 20 percent of all students in higher education, MSI teacher education programs produced:

  • 54.1 percent of Latinx students who received undergraduate degrees in education
  • 32.8 percent of Black or African American students who received undergraduate degrees in education
  • 57.7 percent of Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander students who received undergraduate degrees in education
  • 17.4 percent of Asian American students who received undergraduate degrees in education
  • 11.7 percent of American Indian and Alaskan Native students who received undergraduate degrees in education

Given this lack of awareness toward MSI teacher education, we set out two years ago on a mission to co-edit a book on this topic. Our goal was to make the teacher education work at MSIs more visible to teacher educators, education scholars, and policy makers. We wanted to shed light on this work that is so often overshadowed.

It was important for us in this project to work with scholars at MSIs, especially teacher educators, because their knowledge and expertise is often invisibilized. Over the course of this project, we worked with seventeen 17 authors, most of whom were teacher educators at MSIs. As we and our interviewees have experienced, scholars at MSIs often have some of the heaviest teaching loads in all of higher education. While professors at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, we routinely taught 16 credit hours each semester in addition to administering multiple programs, mentoring students, and maintaining a presence on campus often every day of the week. At teaching-heavy institutions, these duties leave little time to pursue book contracts and peer-reviewed articles. Knowing how real the struggle is at some institutions, we wanted this book to identify and insert the work of MSI teacher educators directly into the purview of scholars, policy makers, and the public.

Through this project, we came to see that the goal of creating a more racially diverse teaching profession only scratches the surface of what is happening in MSI teacher education programs. For instance, tribal institutions are building teacher education around the Native communities their teachers will serve. Hispanic Serving Institutions are leaders in “grow your own” teacher education programs that recruit young adults to become teachers in their own communities. Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Institutions are building support systems around their students to pass teacher licensure exams that often unfairly screen candidates of color out of teacher education programs. Historically Black Colleges and Universities are the originators of justice-oriented pedagogy and continue pushing teachers to think about equity and justice in a changing world. We came to understand that MSI teacher education programs do much more than create a more racially diverse teaching profession. They shape teacher education in important ways not always evident at historically and predominantly white institutions.

From completing this project, we also came to see MSIs not as four separate institution types under one umbrella term but as a family of institutions. We think about this term “family” and what it offers to the ways we think about institutions. Individual family members are not identical, but they share a common lineage. Of course, there are families by birth and families by earth. Some family members might not share biological lineage, but their circumstances and journeys (like adoption) have given them family bonds nonetheless. The diversity among family members is what makes them sturdy and strong. We see something similar among MSIs and their teacher education programs. Although there is great variety among them, it is useful to see their commonalities and intersections. Doing so reveals the collective thrust they can have on teacher education.

What came from this year of work was Teacher Education Across Minority Serving Institutions: Programs, Policies, and Social Justice, which was just released by Rutgers University press. This blog entry starts a month-long series on MSIs Unplugged based upon the contents of the book. Authors will draw from their chapter in our volume to illustrate some of important work happening in MSI teacher education programs. We hope this series helps move MSI teacher education into the view of both education scholars and the general public.

Lynnette Mawhinney Ph.D., is associate professor and co-coordinator of urban education program at The College of New Jersey, where her work focuses on the professional lives of aspiring and current urban teachers and urban schooling. She began her career in teacher education at Lincoln University (PA), the oldest historically black university in the country. She is the author of We Got Next: Urban Education and the Next Generation of Black Teachers (Peter Lang, 2014), co-editor of Teacher Education across Minority Serving Institutions: Programs, Policies, and Social Justice (Rutgers University Press, 2017), and co-author of her upcoming book There Has to Be a Better Way: Lessons from Former Urban Teachers.

Emery Petchauer, Ed.D., is associate professor of English and Teacher Education at Michigan State University, where he also coordinates the English education program. His work has focused on urban education, teacher education, high-stakes testing, and hip-hop studies. He is the author of Hip-Hop Culture in College Students’ Lives (Routledge, 2012) and the co-editor of Schooling Hip-Hop: Expanding Hip-Hop Based Education Across the Curriculum (Teachers College Press, 2013). He began his career in teacher education at Lincoln University, the oldest historically Black university in the country.

Guide for Educators To Feature Tribal College Professionals’ Work



Dina Horwedel

Teacher Education Across Minority Serving Institutions: Programs, Policies, and Social Justice, edited by Emery Petchauer and Lynnette Mawhinney, is a new guide for educators that shares successful teaching practices and teacher education programs from minority-serving institutions and how they are creating social change and transforming communities in the process.

Two TCU professors’ work cites the importance of community relationships when creating education programs. The Native approach to teaching, in which educators collaborate with parents and the community to integrate Native knowledge and cultural understanding into curriculum, best reflects Native community values. The approach is also proven: it grounds children in their identity, building healthy approaches to learning and healthy relationships, and creates positive validation of community ideas, helping students to succeed academically and socially.

The Navajo nation established the first tribal college in 1968 to provide place-based education steeped in language and culture for its community. Other tribal communities followed in the spirit of self-determination to create higher education institutions to serve their communities. Today, 37 TCUs serve American Indian communities across the United States, located on or near Indian reservations, 34 of which are accredited.

In “Learning from the Community: Innovative Partnerships That Inform Tribal College Teacher Education Programming,” Danielle Lansing, an instructor at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI), a TCU in Albuquerque, New Mexico, details how community-based partnerships created a strong, culturally based early childhood education curriculum and preservice teaching opportunities.

Lansing shares that for generations Native parents were excluded because they were seen as an impediment to their children’s assimilation. Yet consulting parents is paramount in defining community culture when creating education programs to develop engaged tribal citizens.

SIPI engaged early childhood education parents through a Photovoice Project. Using photographs, they answered research questions that allowed them to act as change agents for their children’s education, many for the first time.

Parents shared the need for their children to learn about their tribal heritage and cultures, a connection to ancestral homelands, kinship connections, the value of Native teachings and knowledge, and creating harmonious relationships.

The Photovoice Project also provided preservice teachers with new opportunities to implement a locally created curriculum; experience fully developed practicum experiences and curriculum that integrate language and culture; and develop strong connections with teachers and community members.

Lansing says TCUs are ideal institutions for creating community-based partnerships between tribal nations and families because of their unique missions and tribal communities. These partnerships strengthen early childhood education by creating innovative education practices and culturally infused curriculum, and positively impact preservice teachers by building their capacity to create community change.

In “The Future of Teacher Education at TCUs: A Talking Circle of Education Warriors,” Dr. Carmelita Lamb, a former TCU a former TCU chair at Turtle Mountain Community College (serving the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota) and current Chair of Graduate Studies and Distance Education-University of Mary, Bismarck, North Dakota, shares how intertribal and inter-institutional collaboration in the Native community helped empower more Native students in their educational journey without requiring them to leave their communities. She illustrates how collaboration and grassroots-based education have transformed how TCUs implement higher education to meet their communities’ needs.

Using the Native tradition of Talking Circles, Lamb interviewed education department chairs to deepen relationships and discern the current status of education programs at TCUs, current challenges, and their vision for teacher education in Indian Country.

Lamb delves into professional relationships at TCUs and a shared mission of promoting student success with a focus on “deeply personal [student] relationships.”

Lamb worked with institutions offering education programs to identify the concerns and successes of TCU department chairs, including inadequate funding to maintain courses of study, the need for technological resources, and disparity in federal funding opportunities across institutions for TCU teacher education programs. Students also face transportation challenges, lack of or shortage of student housing, and funding issues that prevent enrollment or completion.

It is not surprising to anyone involved with TCUs that the same programmatic and institutional successes Lamb’s interviews reveal are those Lansing identifies as the underpinnings of SIPI’s early childhood education program success. The work of TCUs shows that collaborative and culturally based curriculum help Native students succeed while furthering “…the efforts of their ancestors to pursue a better future for all Native people.”

Dina Horwedel is the director of public education for the American Indian College Fund, the nation’s largest charity supporting Native higher education. She holds a B.S. degree in journalism with honors from Bowling Green State University and a J.D. degree from Cleveland State University.